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Shawn Armstrong is enhancing his pitch mix

The Rays reliever spoke candidly about where he is as a pitcher, and where he’s (hopefully) headed.

At the trade deadline last year the Rays struck a small in-division deal with the Baltimore Orioles, acquiring reliever Shawn Armstrong for cash considerations.

Armstrong threw 16 innings across 11 games down the stretch for the Rays last year. His 4.50 ERA and 5.61 FIP in those innings left more to be desired though, and he was eventually designated for assignment on September 12th, 2021.

Although the results weren’t great, the Rays saw enough strength in Shawn’s arm (pun intended) to give him a second go-around in 2022. Tampa Bay signed Armstrong to a minor league deal on May 10th of this year and selected him to the big league roster just three weeks later.

Armstrong now possesses a 25.3% strikeout rate and 5.0% walk rate across 18 innings with the Rays in 2022, both of which are above average figures. His 3.50 ERA is also better than average, and matches his FIP and xFIP ERA estimators, and he’s done this while working as many as three innings at a time.

These numbers are an improvement from what he mustered last season in a Rays uniform, but what’s more interesting is how exactly he’s getting there.

Below is a table that compares Armstrong’s pitch usages from his time in Tampa Bay last year to his time with the club this year:

Shawn Armstrong Pitch Mix Comparison

Pitch Type 2021 with TB 2022 with TB Difference
Pitch Type 2021 with TB 2022 with TB Difference
Fourseam 61.8% 33.4% -28.4%
Sinker 0.0% 35.3% 35.3%
Cutter 23.9% 27.8% 3.9%
Slider 13.0% 3.4% -9.6%
Data Source: Pitch Info via FanGraphs

A couple takeaways are immediately noticeable: the four seamer and slider usages are down while sinkers are up for Armstrong. Now the question is “Why?”

Danny Russell got a chance to ask Armstrong about his new pitch mix during the last Boston series. Regarding the new sinker:

I added the sinker this offseason to give hitters a different look and to add a pitch with positive horizontal movement versus everything else that moves glove-side. I’m trying to get less comfortability out of righties who are just able to lean out over the plate. You now have to respect the four seam and the sinker which gets more horizontal separation than everything else I have.

We can see exactly what Shawn is talking about too when comparing his pitch movement plots from 2021 and 2022:

Armstrong Pitch Movement Comparison

Armstrong has always been a guy with a mostly glove-side movement arsenal, which means that everything is moving away from righties and in to lefties. That is very visible in the 2021 plot from above, where even his four-seam fastball is of the vertical up/down variety, occasionally crossing over into true cut.

The 2022 plot shows that brand new orange cluster of pitches which represent his sinkers from this year, and you can see that they are the only pitches with any arm-side movement. While his four-seam, cutter, and slider all moved on basically a single axis (you could draw one line through the center of each clump), the new sinker stands apart.

In his quote above Armstrong also specifically mentioned that he developed this pitch to help with righties, which checks out with the numbers. So far, 36.7% of the pitches he’s thrown to righties this year have been sinkers, while only 21.0 % of the pitches he’s thrown to lefties this year have been sinkers. Right-handed hitters have only posted a .306 wOBA and 83.4 average exit velocity against his sinkers this year, both of which are better than average marks.

Armstrong discussed further exactly how he developed the new pitch:

I talked with (Kyle) Snyder a little bit about it last year but we weren’t going to add it in August or September of last year. I also talked with Tyler Zombro this offseason who I was with in Durham last year and he said “You can throw a two-seamer” and I said “No way, every time I throw a two-seamer it cuts.” He sat me down and talked to me about arm angle, hand axis, and the inverted spin data from Trackman. He compared my release point to Clay Holmes and told me “if he can do it, you can do it” and I bought in and it ended up working out. Its one of those pitches that is kind of a safety net but it’s also a good pitch.

It’s fascinating that current Rays farmhand Tyler Zombro, who also now works as a pitching coach for Tread Athletics, essentially helped Armstrong craft an entirely new pitch, and now he is getting big league hitters out with it.

The addition of this sinker can explain a large chunk of why Armstrong’s fourseam usage is down. He has replaced a lot of those fastballs with a new sinker in an attempt to differ his fastball shapes and keep hitters on their toes. What this new pitch does not explain however is the absence of Armstrong’s slider in 2022.

The slider that Armstrong throws grades out very well on paper. It gets great movement and is thrown very hard. He used it a fair amount of the time last year, but it’s been almost non-existent this season. Danny asked him why that is:

Really just trying to get the slider more consistent now in order to pair it off of the cutter. My four-seam and my cutter are good and we know that, that’s the scouting report on me all over the big leagues. So, being able to throw something with less vertical and more horizontal and match that with my other pitches should be a way to get my K’s per nine up. I do want to get my slider percentage up because it is an outlier pitch as well as far as the spin rate and break go. The wOBA and the swing-and-miss is there, but the consistency in the zone has to be there as well.

Armstrong provides some very detailed insight here, speaking candidly about how he knows he has a great pitch at his disposal, but is struggling to find consistency with it at the moment. This explains why he’s only thrown 10 total sliders across 15 innings with the Rays this year, and you can see that the locations of those sliders have been all over the place so far:

Armstrong Slider Locations (2022 with Rays)

Armstrong also walked through a specific outing in which he was struggling with that slider consistency. The outing that he broke down occurred on July 3rd, when he was called upon to face the heart of Toronto’s order. Here’s how he described it:

I got a swinging strike three from Springer (on the slider) the other night, and then I threw the same pitch to Bichette and it didn’t move and he hit it for a single. Honestly, with the vast majority of hitters in the big leagues, that pitch I threw to Bichette would probably be put out of the ballpark.

Let’s take a look into the sequence that Armstrong references here. First, here’s the swinging strike to Springer:

And now the single given up to Bo Bichette:

Armstrong is exactly right. One pitch is extremely well executed, and the other is not. These two pitches do a great job in encapsulating what Armstrong has been struggling with this season.

Hopefully Armstrong is able to find consistency with this pitch, as he now looks like a pitcher with a very diverse arsenal if he can control it. The hard fourseam gives him a put-away weapon at the top of the zone, the cutter and sinker give him two distinct pitches that can get in on the hands of lefties and righties respectively, and his wipeout slider will work against anybody if he can harness it.

That’s a pitcher with a very intriguing pitch mix, and keep in mind, Armstrong has already had plenty of success this season even while dealing with these growing pains. It’s clear why the Rays traded for him last year and then stepped in again when he was available in 2022. Armstrong’s arsenal has the potential to be a nightmare for hitters, hopefully he is able to tap into that potential during his time with the Rays.

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